What: Of Dolls & Murder regional premiere
When: 7:30 p.m., Sept. 28
Where: The Heights Theater, 3951 Central Ave. NE, Columbia Heights
Cost: $10 members/$12 non-members
Ten years ago, local author and documentary filmmaker Susan Marks read an article about dollhouses that she would never forget. Years after that, she tried to shake her fascination with reading a book about those same diminutive dwellings.
“I thought, ‘Perfect, great. I’ll get that book and that will satisfy my curiosity with this story,’”**** Marks said. “But it really didn’t. The book was so well-written that it just made me want to know more.”
Four years ago, she decided to make a documentary about them. Next week, Marks will put up the fruits of her labor for an all-you-can-watch buffet at the Heights Theater.
Upon further examination, Marks no longer seems like the type of especially enterprising individual who knits all of their own berets. These dollhouses that have formed such an interest for Marks are no playthings. In fact, they are a series of depictions of grisly murders — complete with blood streaks and the occasional one-inch kitchen knife — handcrafted by Frances Glessner Lee in the ’30s and ’40s.
These dioramas, which form the basis of Marks’ documentary, “Of Dolls & Murder,” have been kept under lock and key in the Baltimore Medical Examiner’s Office since Lee donated them in 1945. The pint-sized crime scenes have served as both a fringe curiosity for morbid imaginations and also a valuable asset for the city’s homicide detective training programs for the past seven decades.
Each display — called a “Nutshell“ — is a case study of an actual murder or murders with a companionate solution. Lee crafted the shells on a 1-foot to 1-inch scale, and embellished her sets with meticulous details like printed newspapers, scattered bullet casings and hand-painted blood spatterings. She even went through the trouble of knitting tiny stockings on straight pins.
These Nutshell Studies, which would beCrafts Fair-level quaint if not for Lee’s immaculately detailed work with doll stab wounds, form the launch pad for the documentary’s philosophical musings about death from experts ranging from a chief medical examiner to the executive producer of “CSI.”
“A simplistic way to say it is that we were looking to strike this balance between camp and seriousness, but it was really more than that.” Marks said. “Some of the issues that we discuss in our film are … difficult issues that could really bring a film down and could have it be really macabre and in a way difficult to watch.”
The film achieves its delicate balance by placing the nutshells as a thematic coda for the rest of its insight and speculation. As the documentary saunters toward its conclusion, viewers are guided by the familiar voice-of-God-style narration from filmmaker John Waters.
Who knew God sounded like the effeminate director of “Pink Flamingos?”
“We feel so lucky to have him part of the film,” Marks said. “I knew that he knew of the Nutshell studies of unexplained deaths … and he was happy to do it.”
The making of a documentary about death was no cakewalk, however. Marks slogged through morgues, crime scenes and the Body Farm: a swath of land for researchers to study the rates of decomposition of human bodies in various exterior locales, whether under open sunlight or the trunk of a car.
“I couldn’t handle the whole body farm experience,” Marks said. “Here is this rare thing … which very few people know about, and so we really thought we wanted to go there. And when we got there, we were quite sure we didn’t want to be there.”
To clarify, “Of Dolls & Murder” is about a brilliant and wealthy old woman’s hobby of accurately depicting what a gunshot blast to the head would look like on a 1-inch scale because she saw a need for it in crime scene investigation in the’30s.
Because of her genius and foresight, our boys in blue still use them today.
“Of Dolls & Murder” walks its audience along the fine line between philosophical, legal and scientific perspectives on death and crime scene investigation. While every so often, John Waters pokes his head in to make sure the spiritual crises are kept to a minimum. That’s it, in a nutshell.
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